Broken-hearted Charlie isn't sure how he can move forward with his life. Parkdale wants to put him in reverse.
No lightning. No crashes. It has always annoyed Charlie when he sees England depicted in a Hollywood film, with thunder booming over a rain-swept street. It doesn’t storm like that here. England doesn’t crackle and smash.
Of course, it does rain. It rains on a regular basis. Sometimes it rains hard. Like today.
Charlie leaves the park – deserted – and walks along a residential street – empty.
Does he look out of place? Somewhat. Who else would be out walking in this weather?
“You look like a criminal,” Ruth remarks. “You definitely look suspicious.”
“Thanks,” replies Charlie drily. Neither description is fair. He’s wearing a sensible raincoat, carrying an Osprey backpack. He’s just someone out for a walk, no big deal.
There are some cars, headlights on, wipers working hard, but it looks as though most people looked out the window or checked the forecast on their phone and decided that wherever they were planning on being today, it can wait.
Shouldn’t Charlie make the same decision?
“Where are you going?” Ruth asks. She sounds tired. “When are you going to stop?”
“None of your business.”
Still, it’s a good question. This is fine in the sunshine, but to keep walking like this, to put up with wet shoes and socks, and the incessant drum of water on the hood of his raincoat? Perhaps he does have urgent matters to attend to. Maybe he is looking for the end of the world or a rabbit-hole to fall down. He pictures himself as Alice in Wonderland sometimes, tumbling into a fantastical new world. Instead, he just goes from city to town, from village back to city, getting nowhere.
He’s been traveling like this for months. Trains, buses, and walking. He has seen the coast, he has seen the cities, and he has seen plenty of small towns like this. Although, this is the cleanest town, the quietest town. It must be the rain, drowning out any other sounds, keeping people inside and out of trouble.
“Please Charlie, tell me where you’re going.” Ruth says. She pleads. She never pleaded before, and Charlie frowns. This isn’t realistic.
“I’m worried about you.”
“You don’t get to be worried. Not anymore.”
He keeps his eyes on his feet, at first dodging the puddles and then aiming for them, because there’s a point at which you really can’t get any wetter. From time to time, he looks up, side to side, and sees evidence of rainy-day activities as he passes the houses. The homes without lace curtains, showing off domestic bliss; a family gathered around the dining table to play a board game, kids glued to a flickering TV. And then one person, a woman, standing at the window and looking out, and she must see Charlie because she raises a hand in recognition.
“You should knock on the door,” suggests Ruth, “let her know you’re here. She’s clearly been expecting you.”
She hasn’t. Which is why Charlie waves and then keeps walking. No one in this little town is expecting Charlie. Like every other place Charlie has visited this summer, he doesn’t belong here. He is a visitor, he is temporary. Soon he will be gone, somewhere else, no closer to getting to where he needs to be.
The rain gets harder. He looks up, and he can’t see into people’s homes anymore, it’s like trying to look through a shower. A waterfall. It turns out that you can get wetter after all. Water that feels as though it is seeping into his bones, soaking into his skull.
Is the storm dangerous? Probably not. Would it be nice to take a break from it, to put down his backpack? Without a doubt.
Charlie reaches the end of the street and turns a corner. He’ll get somewhere eventually, right? The homes in Parkdale can’t go on forever. Why did Charlie get off the train here? Where is he going, exactly? Ruth’s questions are valid, but Charlie doesn’t have answers. Like yesterday, and the days before.
But there is something, up ahead. He peers through the rain, wipes at his face as if that will improve his vision. A large building, not a house. A lot of open space around it, some paved over for parking, and plenty of it green for playing. A school.
It’s August, summer holidays. The car park is empty, and although the school will surely be locked, there is shelter by the entrance. He jogs over and takes off his backpack. Better, yes. He looks above the doors – Parkdale Primary School – and then he looks through the glass doors. The lights aren’t on, there’s nothing to see.
“So this is your grand plan?” Ruth asks. Her tone has changed from pleading to sarcastic. She sounds like her old self. “You’re going to hang out here?”
“I just need a break,” Charlie mutters. He shouldn’t have to enunciate because Ruth isn’t here. It’s an imagined dialogue, to stop him losing his marbles, or perhaps proof that he already has.
“You’d be better off finding a restaurant, Charlie. A little takeaway. You could dry off, get some food inside you. Probably just need a cup of tea. Remember that place…in Brighton! Best fish and chips ever.”
“Ruth, leave me alone.” No more muttering. That was almost a shout.
“I already did.” There’s a lightness in her tone. A sweetness. She must be smiling. Maybe she’s laughing. “Remember?”
That was a shout. Good thing this place is empty, good thing there’s no audience to decide that Charlie is unhinged, a man – white, late 20s, soaked to the bone – yelling at no one.
Charlie removes his raincoat and shakes it off. He listens to the rain, which sounds different, less deadening now that he’s not in it. He can hear water rattle down a drainpipe to his left.
And then there is light. He spins around to see a figure at the door. A woman in blue looking out at him.
Charlie will run. He will grab his backpack and race back into the rain, even without wearing his coat, because anything’s better than explaining his behaviour.
The woman holds up a hand. Stop. She opens the door, and Charlie sees that it was never locked.
“Look at you, you’re soaked, poor thing.” The woman – Charlie guesses that she’s in her fifties, dressed in a blue cardigan and grey skirt – looks past him at the rain. “It’s supposed to stop later, but oh dear.” She looks him up and down. “You’re look like a drowned rat.”
“Sorry,” Charlie says, as if he’s apologizing for the weather, or perhaps his condition. But really, he’s sorry about swearing. He’s sorry for being here in the first place. “I just wanted to get a bit of shelter, I didn’t know anyone was here.” He looks down at his feet. “Summer holidays and all that.”
“That’s right, dear,” says the woman, “all the children are away.” She holds the door open, gestures for him to come inside. “Come on, you can get dried off.”
“It’s okay,” Charlie says, “I don’t want to get mud all over-“
The woman laughs. “All my little boys and girls over the years? Trust me, this school has seen worse.” She curls her finger and beckons him again. “I’ve got towels, I can even rustle up a snack.” She smiles, as if she knows instinctively that he’s not dangerous, that he’s not a maniac, even if he shouts at ghosts.
“I’m not a ghost,” Ruth says curtly, a voice that only Charlie can hear, a voice that exists in the man’s heartbroken head.
Charlie nods. Better to be inside. Better to spend time with real people, especially someone who looks as harmless as this old lady.
“Thank you,” he tells the woman, lifting up his backpack and crossing the threshold. “I’ve got a facemask,” he says, preparing to reach inside an inside pocket of his coat.
“Don’t worry about that,” says the woman briskly, as if the pandemic is nothing. Charlie, fully vaccinated, decides not to pursue the matter. If a woman in her fifties isn’t concerned, then he won’t be either.
She leads him down a corridor.
“I’m Charlie,” he says over the sound of his squelching feet.
“You can call me Miss Anderson,” the woman replies. “Here we are.” She opens a door marked Nurse’s Office.
It’s a small room with space for a bed, chair, and a supply cupboard.
Charlie puts down his backpack and watches as Miss Anderson opens the cupboard. “There it is…” She stands on tip-toes and then says, “Can you reach it for me, dear? Right on the top.”
Charlie takes the large, white towel. He dries off his hands. ”Thanks.”
Miss Anderson nods. “Go on, dry your hair.”
Charlie does as he’s told, impressed by the softness of the towel. He sniffs at it and is instantly rewarded with the smell of apples. A childhood memory surfaces, times picking fruit with his grandparents. He sighs. Well laundered towels, with fabric conditioner: just one of the things that people with their lives together have.
“Much better,” says Miss Anderson, nodding at Charlie’s progress. She laughs. “We don’t want drowned rats, we want nice, dry boys!”
Charlie laughs in response, but mostly out of politeness. “I won’t stay long,” he says. “But I appreciate getting a break from the rain.”
“You can stay as long as you need to,” she replies, turning back to the supply cupboard. “Yes, there’s some clothes in here. Find yourself something to wear, I’m sure you can find something in your size.” She looks him up and down. “Just fine.” She goes to the doorway. “I’m going to find you something to eat, dear, I won’t be too long.”
“Thanks,” says Charlie. “You’re being very kind. I’m sorry, I must be keeping you from something.”
Miss Anderson waves the idea away. “Don’t worry, dear. Just a spot of tidying up.” She smiles. “This is my school, Charlie, I’m in charge. And if I want to take care of a visitor, then I will.”
Charlie nods as the woman leaves. He puts down the towel and rubs his hands. They’re dry, but they’re also tingling, perhaps a reaction to coming in from outside after all that rain.
He turns his attention to the supply cupboard. Will it really have clothes that fit him? Charlie inspects the shelf marked ‘boys’ and pulls off the largest sweatshirt – bright red with the school logo on the chest – he can find and holds it up to his chest. It doesn’t come close to fitting.
When Charlie looks at the label, he sees a ‘10’. He shakes his head, pulling out more clothes to find that everything, from the polo shirts to the shorts and underwear, is for primary school aged boys. He shrugs; of course it is. Why on earth would Miss Anderson think that any of this could fit a grown man?
Charlie shakes his head. Partly in wonder at the woman’s mistake – she said she was in charge, which Charlie took to mean she is the headmistress, but perhaps she is just some assistant, and rather eccentric with it – and partly because of the tingling. It has spread from his hands to his face and scalp.
Everywhere that has come into contact with the towel.
He sighs. Knowing his luck, he’s allergic to the material or the chemicals used to wash it. He drops the towel onto the bed.
Is it ironic, that he’s having someone strange skin reaction in a nurse’s office?
Either way, the tingling will subside when he’s back outside. Charlie looks through the window; the rain continues to hammer down and he watches it bounce off the empty car park spaces.
But does he really want to stay and chat with the crazy old lady who expects him to dress in a ten-year old’s school uniform? She’s probably as harmless as she looks, but it’s going to be an awkward exchange.
Charlie decides to leave before that happens, but as soon as he picks up his backpack, he hears footsteps coming down the corridor.
“I hope you’re hungry,” calls Miss Anderson. “I found some lovely cakes!”
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